As the new art of photography delighted Americans in the 19th century, Frederick Douglass seized hold of it as “the revenant” of black culture. The former slave, writer, and statesman believed photography could highlight “the essential humanity” of its subject, create a historical thread of dignity for future generations, and transcend stereotypes.
While Douglass may not have foreseen photography’s evolution into the blockbuster movie, he might approve of what the new Marvel superhero film “Black Panther” does for black identity as well as women’s identity – and even for the cool factor of science, technology, engineering, and math.
Mothers and fathers across the racial spectrum report children excited to put their 3-D glasses on and feel the Dolby percussion as they’re transported to the good-versus-evil battles over the make-believe, high-tech nation of Wakanda. The black cast delivering that story is not what the kids seem to be talking about. But the cultural impression being absorbed is that the story is driven by strong black characters.
The wrong kind of obsession with racial identity can create social divides. But perhaps what this movie illustrates best is the potential for infinite expressions of a deeper identity. The color of one’s skin defines one aspect of identity, but it does not limit expression of individuality, creativity, or intelligence. Nor should it limit what one can imagine for one’s self.
Witness the king with superpowers and a soft heart, who freezes when he sees the love of his life and who longs to save his nemesis; the nerdy princess who invented practically every high-tech device advancing her nation; the warrior women whose physical strength is matched only by their powerful integrity.
There have been many films and stories with black characters at the center, but nearly always they are surrounded by the richer, more powerful white world. This mirrors the experience certainly of many African-Americans who are daily conscious of living in a white-dominated world.
But this movie is different. The nation of Wakanda is secretly a civilization vastly ahead of the rest of the world, posing as a poor country because it doesn’t want to put its resources and cultural values at risk. And the story sets up no “other” to exclude; no one is dehumanized, and no race represents the enemy.
Ultimately this is just a fantasy. But the imagination is sometimes where barriers fall first. It’s important that people of color can be the rich beneficiaries of an imagined world, reflecting that “essential humanity” Douglass longed to preserve.